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Egypt's Sisi faces backlash against removal of the Quran from school textbooks

Some defend the decision as a means of 'fighting extremism', while others oppose it as an act of 'secularisation'
Pupils line up in the courtyard of the Mahaba school in Ezbet al-Nakhl, a shanty town north of the Egyptian capital Cairo on 13 October, 2018 (AFP/file photo)
By in
Cairo

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is causing controversy by ordering education officials to restrict verses from the Quran to Islamic religion textbooks in the schools of the predominantly Muslim nation.

Sisi has ordered education officials to remove the same verses from the textbooks of all other subjects, a Ministry of Education official revealed recently.  

Reda Hegazi, the deputy minister of education, added that the Egyptian president had asked the Ministry of Education to allow "moderate" schoolteachers only to teach Islamic texts to pupils at the nation's schools.

'The removal of these verses will weaken the curricula, especially the Arabic language curricula'

- Salah Abdel Maaboud, al-Nour Party

"This aims to fight extremism and prevent extremists from teaching religion to the pupils," Hegazi told the members of the Committee on Defence and National Security in the House of Representatives (lower house of parliament) on 14 February. 

The commands of the Egyptian president are the latest in a series of efforts his administration says are aimed at fighting "extremism." 

The country has been seeing an upsurge in deadly attacks for several years by militants affiliated with the Islamic State (IS), despite Sisi's campaigns against the group.

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Sisi has asked educational and religious officials, especially in al-Azhar, the highest seat of Sunni Islamic learning, to reform school curricula and purge books of religious content that has allegedly been used by militants in justifying their attacks. 

Al-Azhar, which owns thousands of schools and a university that has branches in several Egyptian provinces, says it is revising the curricula of its schools and colleges to remove content it deems problematic. 

Now, however, it is apparently the turn of the schools supervised by the Ministry of Education to reform their curricula.

Mixed education

The schools supervised by the Ministry of Education, numbering close to 50,000, lay stress on natural and social sciences, whereas the schools and institutes of al-Azhar, around 65,000, place the stress on religion and religious studies.  

Nevertheless, the textbooks taught at the schools supervised by the Ministry of Education contain many references to the Quran, sometimes quoting verses from the holy book and sayings of Prophet Muhammad. 

These religious texts function as evidence that backs some of the information mentioned in textbooks, especially those on morality, environmental conservation, history and the Arabic language. 

Egyptian schoolchildren
Schoolchildren in Cairo. Some lawmakers have said that the presence of religious texts in non-religious textbooks is 'dangerous' (AFP)

Sisi's view finds support among some lawmakers.

Freddy Elbaiady, a member of the Committee on Defence and National Security in the House of Representatives, says the presence of these texts in non-religious textbooks is "dangerous".

"It gives the chance for unqualified schoolteachers to misinterpret them," Elbaiady told Middle East Eye. "This can lead to misunderstanding school lessons as well as the religious texts themselves." 

The same view also finds support among a large number of Egyptian secularists, who say the schools supervised by the Ministry of Education should offer purely secular education.

Egypt's former Minister of Culture Gaber Asfour once called for eliminating religious education and religious schools altogether. 

Backlash

The argument over whether non-religious textbooks should contain verses from the Quran or sayings of the prophet is a sensitive issue in Egypt. 

There are fears that the  decision would constitute an attack on the religious identity of Egypt.

Around 23 million pupils are enrolled in schools nationwide, according to the Ministry of Education. This means that there is a school pupil in almost every Egyptian home.

'These verses back the information mentioned in the textbooks. The presence of these verses puts textbook information beyond doubt'

- Shaimaa Sayed, mother of three schoolchildren

Ahmed Abdel Aziz, an adviser to the late Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, said that Sisi wants to secularise the Egyptian society. 

"This is true after the Egyptian state itself was secularised," Abdel Aziz said.

Secularism has negative connotations among Egypt's conservatives and religious parties, which view calls for reducing religious teaching at the schools as an attack against the Islamic identity of the majority of Egyptians. 

The Salafist al-Nour Party says removing Islamic texts from school textbooks is totally unacceptable. 

"The removal of these verses will weaken the curricula, especially the Arabic language curricula," Salah Abdel Maaboud, a senior member of the party, told MEE.

"Educational authorities can easily solve the problem of misinterpreting religious texts by committing schoolteachers to specific interpretations." 

Some citizens share the same view. They say the presence of verses from the Quran in school textbooks is necessary for the educational process itself.

"These verses back the information mentioned in the textbooks," said Shaimaa Sayed, a housewife and a mother of three schoolchildren. "The presence of these verses puts textbook information beyond doubt," she told MEE. 

Wave of 'extremism'

Sisi's directives for education officials come as his country moves ahead in its purported fight against extremism. 

Egypt has been at the heart of the wave of militant attacks that increased following former General Sisi's seizure of power in a military coup against his democratically elected predecessor in 2013. The repeated attacks targeted mosques, churches, security facilities and personnel. 

'We need to know that religious texts fit better in books on religion, not in textbooks about the Arabic language or history'

- Gehad Auda, Helwan University

Egypt is also fighting a branch of the Islamic State group (IS) in Sinai.

The Egyptian president's fear is that the presence of Quran verses in non-religion textbooks will give the chance for non-specialised schoolteachers to interpret these verses wrongly and consequently radicalise the pupils, some observers said.

"We need to know that religious texts fit better in books on religion, not in textbooks about the Arabic language or history," Gehad Auda, a professor of political science at Helwan University, told MEE. "This is why I believe removing Quran verses from school textbooks is a good step on the road to educational reform."  

Apart from ordering the removal of some content from school textbooks, Sisi is also tightening control over the mosques. 

Government-appointed inspectors check the libraries of mosques to ensure that they do not contain what are deemed radical books or tapes. 

The government also limits preaching at the nation's more than 100,000 mosques to graduates of Al-Azhar, who are on the payroll of the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which supervises the mosques. 

Respect for all religions

The Ministry of Education says it will include information and lessons about Christian history in the school curricula. 

It adds that it is also considering a proposal for suspending the teaching of the Islamic religion as a separate subject. 

Instead, the ministry says, a book containing the principles and ideals shared by the adherents of all heavenly religions will be taught to pupils of all religions in all educational stages. 

'Those opposing the new moves have to know that educational officials want to protect the Islamic faith too'

- Hamed Abu Taleb, Islamic Research Academy

"This book is very important because it will teach pupils to have respect for the followers of all religions," Hegazi told MEE. "Spreading tolerance is the best way to fight extremism."

There is support for such ideas inside the religious establishment, including within the Islamic Research Academy, the decision-making body of al-Azhar. 

Academy senior member Hamed Abu Taleb found no reason for fear regarding the removal of Quran verses from school textbooks.

Some of the teachers, he said, interpret these verses in a way that suits their desires or political agenda. 

"Radicals usually twist religious interpretations to serve their own agenda," Abul Taleb told MEE. "Those opposing the new moves have to know that educational officials want to protect the Islamic faith too." 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.